Controversies about Roleplaying: Concerns about Violence



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Image by HNewberry


The Beginning of the Strife

The most alarming concern about roleplaying games is that they influence players to commit violence against themselves and others, and it is a fear left over from the 1980s. As far as I know, roleplaying games were first linked to dangerous activities during the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in 1979. Egbert vanished for about a month, and investigators searched tunnels beneath his school after being told that Egbert and his friends played D&D in them. When Egbert was eventually found, the investigator who found him, William Dear, advised Egbert's parents to keep the details quiet. They did not release information on where or why their son had run away until Egbert fatally shot himself in August of 1980.

After Egbert's death, it was finally revealed that the teen had run away to New Orleans in a very troubled state that had nothing to do with roleplaying games, and he botched an attempt to kill himself there. Egbert's parents also revealed that Dear asked them to keep quiet in the hopes of making a movie deal. William Dear published a book called The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in 1984. Rona Jaffe based her novel Mazes and Monsters on accounts of Egbert's disappearance, and this novel was later turned into a film starring Tom Hanks.

The belief that D&D was responsible for Egbert's disappearance continued after his death, and the game was also implicated in the suicide of Irving "Bink" Pulling in June of 1982. Irving's mother, Patricia Ann Pulling, became convinced that her son's involvement with the game led to his decision to kill himself. She filed lawsuits against her son's principal and TSR, the publishers of D&D at that time, but after both suits were dismissed, she decided to create Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BA.D.D.). Her organization was concerned about the influence of violence and occult religious beliefs on entertainment, and on the nation. But B.A.D.D. was not alone in its fears.

During the 1980s, many places in America experienced a moral panic, although many didn't realize it at the time. People were afraid of the violence they saw in teens, particularly in the number of murders and suicides, and they were desperate for answers. When adults examined the ways that teens spent their time, they found types of entertainment that were unfamiliar to them, like heavy metal music and roleplaying games. They also discovered that movies were noticeably more violent. Their fears about the media blended with fears about Satanism, until the problems of the youth were blamed on different types of media, often for religious reasons.

Some people believed that the media was entirely to blame, and tried to get roleplaying games banned from schools and recreation centers. Others thought that the games shouldn't be sold to minors, or that they should carry warning labels to highlight their dangers, much like those we see on cigarettes. A number of people believed that D&D and other forms of entertainment were linked to cults, Satanism, ritualistic sexual abuse, and a great conspiracy of evil across the country.

What's more, a few perpetrators of violent crimes started to use the "D&D made me do it" defense. They claimed that playing D&D pushed them to commit their crimes, and that was enough to get the attention of newspapers and television shows. This defense usually failed, but it was enough to make some critics believe they were right all along and to make parents worry. If you are reading this because you have heard that roleplaying games might be linked to evil or violence, then you are here because the events I've described still echo across our culture.

A Case in Point

The links made between D&D and violent crimes have been problematic at best and misleading at worst. The trouble is that it can be difficult to change the public's first impression after blame has been assigned. As a case in point, I would like to explore the case of Ronald Lampasi, who admitted that he murdered his adoptive father and was present at the shooting of his adoptive mother in 1983. Just ten days after the couple was discovered shot in their home, The Los Angeles Times gave an initial report of the crime (June 14, 1983). Ronald Lampasi was only 16 and spent his 17th birthday incarcerated. The boy's attorney admitted that he didn't yet know what had been going on to make Lampasi kill, but he did say the teen had "emotional problems." 

The paper traced the family's recent troubles, which were deeply disturbing: John Lampasi, Ronald's adoptive father, had been arrested in 1980 as a child molester. Ronald's natural sisters, who had been adopted with him, both told police they had been molested by their adoptive father and were taken into protective custody. The girls told the police that both parents were physically and emotionally abusive, but they claimed that their brother hadn't been abused. John Lampasi pled guilty to one count of child molestation and spent five months in jail. Ronald's sisters ran away from their next foster home and fell off the radar, Ronald remained in the Lampasi's custody. Even though the girls said they hadn't seen their brother being harmed, that doesn't mean they saw everything, that he didn't see his sisters being abused, or that any child should have been left with the Lampasis. The system failed Ronald and his sisters terribly, and the costs of those failures were awful.

This same article says that the police were investigating any part that D&D might have played in the attack, though Ronald Lampasi himself never claimed that D&D made him do it. The terms in the article are quite vague, since they had no idea what sort of link there might be. A law enforcement source said that "Dungeons and Dragons or various forms of devil worship would 'hold as much merit' as linking the crime to past family problems." But such a statement completely discounts how terrible past family problems might have been. In hindsight we have to ask: Can a roleplaying game ever have as much emotional effect as a person's life experiences? Can we disregard a person's life experiences because they liked to play a game?

At first, prosecutor Mike Maguire simply said that D&D might have had something to do with the shootings. Maguire went so far as to bring in witnesses to testify to the fact that Lampasi liked and played D&D. Maguire made the argument that Lampasi had never been molested, but had killed his parents while trying to act out a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Maguire also argued that Lampasi was involved in devil worship. The judge allowed the D&D argument in Lampasi's case, but the judge for Lampasi's friend, David Christianson, found the entire line of inquiry irrelevant. At Lampasi's sentencing in October of 1985, the Superior Court Judge James Cook openly questioned the relevance of the D&D argument and the concerns about demon worship. Cook did not excuse Lampasi for his crimes and neither should anyone else, but he did uphold the value of Lampasi's experience over any tenuous connections to gaming or devilry.

The Absence of Causation

Many people have assumed that roleplaying games cause crime because people who commit crimes have played them. If the games came first, and the violence came after, then the games must be responsible - right? William Schnoebelen, for instance, claims that there are "tragic deaths" that are "related to D&D." He gives sketchy details about names, dates, and crimes (or suicides), and he is even sketchier about how D&D is related. Sometimes he says that the deceased liked to play D&D. Other times, he says that D&D was linked to the time of death. Michael Dempsey, for instance, was supposedly trying to summon D&D-based demons just before he killed himself - even though no D&D manual has summoning rituals. Out of a list of twelve violent scenarios committed by young people, not one proves that D&D causes violent behavior.

Strong links have to be made to prove that playing D&D directly caused violent acts to occur. Even stronger arguments have to be made to show that D&D is the primary cause of violent outbursts like Michael Dempsey's. So far, arguments, details, and examples linking roleplaying games to crime have lacked merit. Saying that D&D is the primary cause leaves out everything else in a person's life that could have led to an emotional disturbance, from their family and habits to their experiences and traumas. These kinds of arguments ignore too many other factors and disregard the complex choices that people make. As of this date I have found no sound evidence of a correlation between roleplaying games and violence of any kind.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

The hysteria surrounding roleplaying games ebbed as the 1980s drew to a close, but reports of roleplayers committing crimes have continued, although they have become rare. It appears that fewer crimes have been blamed on roleplaying games since the mid-1990s but I have no way to be sure. My search of newspaper archives has reaped more information from the 1980s than any other decade, by far. For the most part, many people have abandoned the belief that roleplaying games cause violence; there are simply too many players and not nearly enough crimes to account for such a belief. We are still left with the hard questions - why do young people kill, why do they commit suicide - and no easy answers.

In a way, it would be comforting if we could say that one thing, without a doubt, consistently caused people to kill - because at least then we would know and could take action. If roleplaying games could be proven to be the primary cause of a significant amount of violence, we could stop making them and expect to see a drastic drop in youth crime. Fewer kids would kill themselves or others. Fewer families would suffer. It would be such an easy answer and would save people some of the worst pain we can feel. Except that most violent kids have probably never been exposed to roleplaying games, and most kids who are exposed do not violently lash out.

There are too many other factors of youth crime that take precedence: poverty, drugs, gangs, family abuse, and so on. And then there's the fact that juvenile crime has been on a steady decline as young people have been buying and playing more games than ever before. Even though roleplaying, trading card, and video games have all been blamed for different problems with kids, their popularity has not led to an explosion of violence. The US Department of Justice Department's report from August of 2022 uses FBI data to show that juvenile arrests for homicide have been steadily dropping since the early 1990s; it also shows that juveniles are being arrested less across the board.

In the end, there are no easy answers - but there are easy condemnations.

Newspaper Resources

For those interested in reviewing the articles I have read for this section, please refer to the list below. Each link leads to a copy of the newspaper article in question, for educational purposes. I am certain many other articles can also be found through your local library.

James Dallas Egbert III

Author Unknown. "'Dungeons' Mystery Boy Shoots Himself in the Head." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. August 12, 1980: A2.

Krimm, Teri. "IT WAS A TRAGIC END FOR TEENAGE GENIUS." Boston Globe. Boston, MA. August 25, 1980: 1.

Robbins, William. "A Brilliant Student's Troubled Life and Early Death." New York Times (Late Edition (East Coast)) New York, NY. August 25, 1980: A.20.

Ronald Lampasi

Frank, George. "Parental Slaying: Past Troubles and Fantasy Game Explored." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. June 14, 1983: OC_A1.

Hicks, Jerry. "Role-Playing Game May Have Played Role in Slaying, D.A. Says." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. May 9, 1985: OC_A1.

-----. "Lampasi Convicted of Shooting Parents: Man Guilty of Murdering Father, Attempting to Kill Mother." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. June 7, 1985: OC_A1.

-----. "Lampasi Gets 25 Years Plus for Shootings." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. October 18, 1985: OC_A1.

Attempted Ban on D&D

Author Unknown. "Ban on 'Dragons' Reaffirmed." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. June 26, 1981: C4.

Heffler, Robin. "Valiant Parents Fail in 'Dragon' Match." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. March 7, 1982: WS5.

Taylor, Ronald B. "Fight Over Game: Play or Worship of Devil?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. June 24, 1981: B3.

The D&D Defense

Maharaj, Davan. "Defense Based on Game Hasn't Won Many Juries." Newsday (Combined editions). Long Island, N.Y. Jun 16, 1988: 27.

Violence, the Occult, and D&D

Anonymous Author. "Those Demons!" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. June 25, 1981: F6.

Cooper, Lauren. "SOME SEE A DARK SIDE TO RPGS." Orlando Sentinel. Orlando, FLA. July 21, 2000: X2.

Jones, Tamara. "Slaying Rocks Close-Knit Town; Three Youths Held." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. July 14, 1985: 2.

McVicar, D. Morgan. "A boy's death, a fantasy game, divide a town." Providence Journal. Providence, RI Sep 22, 1985: A-01

O'Connor, Phillip J. "Fantasy game's role in Colorado slayings probed." Chicago Sun - Times. Chicago, ILL. July 18, 1985: 8.

Toth, John. "Fantasy game leads to magic, monsters and controversy." Houston Chronicle. Houston, TX. July 8, 1985: 10.

Witt, Howard. "FANTASY GAME TURNS INTO DEADLY REALITY." Chicago Tribune. Chicago, ILL. January 27, 1985: 3


Barber, Mary. "The Bottom Lines: Brainy Boys Learn About Game of Life in a Game of Good and Evil." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. December 6, 1984: SG2.

Buckman, Jenifer V. "ANTI-OCCULT CRUSADER DIES AT PATRICIA PULLING WAS FOUNDER OF BADD." Richmond Times - Dispatch. Richmond, VA. September 19, 1997: B3

Jaffe, Rona. "Drugs, Fantasy: Games Give Students Their Own World." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. December 16, 1981: G23.


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